Essay 9: The Language of Love
Here is a young man on the verge of adulthood. White, educated, adrift. First person narrator. He is usually between the wars, but he doesn’t have to be. We can find him contemporary novels without even trying. His name is Charles or Henry, or at the very least, Michael or Nicholas. Never Mike, never Nick. If he has to be a Catholic for some structural or atmospheric reason, his name is Patrick.
We are given to understand that he is clever. He has a severe father, also clever. The mother is not what you would call Book Smart, but we see that she has a certain something. She is still the most glamorous woman the narrator knows. Her legs are honed from many years of tennis playing. She was a celebrated debutante and had the choice of the finest men in the city (“my mother’s beauty was a thing that happened to her, and it governed every decision she made”). Most of those fine men are then eliminated from the running (wars, madness, they die of the flu, money troubles), and so the mother had to settle for the severe father. The severe father is devoted to his wife (“my father was the most uxorious man I have ever known”), who accepts his attentions with a kittenish good humour. We are given to understand that they still have sex all the time. The father is always getting his hand up the mother’s jumper.
The narrator has no siblings. He has had one relationship with a girl he found tiresome. She read either too many books, or not enough, or else they were just the wrong kind of books. She is shrilly political, or else she is discarding all sections of the newspaper except Property. She is either too serious, or not serious enough. Her laugh is somehow wrong. There is sometimes a bead of moisture hanging off the end of her nose, and the narrator is always looking at it and wishing that he was dead. She has lipstick on her teeth, or else she is playing the cello in a way that speaks of a terrifying morbid sexuality. She is either a cutter, or else has never had a day’s trouble in her life and is oblivious to the suffering of everyone around her. She tires the narrator out with all of this, but the main thing with her is that she talks too much. She talks about everything, all the time. It is all the narrator can do not to get her into a lake and drown her so that it looks like an accident. He consoles himself with dumping her in a way that seems astonishingly cruel. The bead of moisture at the end of her nose wobbles as she cries and, finally, falls onto the fabric of her dress. The dress is the wrong colour.
The narrator is waiting for something, but he doesn’t know what it is. I do, though. I know fucking exactly what. It is a strange, silent relationship with an older woman. Get ready, young narrator. Here comes your sexual and emotional reckoning, and not a moment too soon.
They met at a pre-war garden party, or on the deck of an ocean liner. It was just the two of them and the spray of the sea air. Inside, a whole party where everyone is drinking and waltzing across the waxed ballroom floor. The floor under the dancers’ feet rocks with the movement of the waves in a way that is like to make you vomit, but the dancers do not mind. They are too busy talking, talking, talking. About? Nothing, of course. We are reminded of the tiresome first girlfriend. The older woman is married to a callous bon vivant who doesn’t love her, and the young man knows all this without having to ask. The best thing about the older woman, in fact, is that she doesn’t want him to ask. She puts her elegant hand over his mouth, in fact, and says, “Don’t speak, please.”
The young man is always going to the house of the older woman and she is Wordlessly opening the door for him. She is just standing there in a silk dressing gown with an unreadable expression on her face. They don’t talk and the man can’t even read her face, but they have an understanding which surpasses speech. This extends to a tacit agreement that talking is for the weak. They are making ferocious love in every part of the house. The older woman is wearing suspenders and you will not believe the calm compassion with which she guides him inside of her. Still no talking, ever. He is in love with her bony articulated shins, the shining diamonds of her kneecaps.
Their relationship runs its course. They mutually agree, without speaking, that to everything there is a season. No talking. They go their separate ways, and the narrator hears nothing of the older woman for many years. In the second to last chapter, we find out that she has killed herself. Pills.
I made up this particular book, but there are plenty of real ones to choose from. Even if a writer doesn’t embrace the narrative arc in its entirety, he picks out certain elements of it. The older woman doesn’t have to die at the end, but she does have to be quiet a lot, or at least speak only when there is absolutely something to say. The young man doesn’t have to have a sexual mother, or even be young, but he does need to pine for silence. He does need to despise idle chatter. There does need to be at least one scene where the narrator describes people talking by using a descriptor like “braying’, “screeching’, “howling”, “talking avidly without sense or mercy”. Both Amises have done this, as well as Evelyn Waugh, Edward St. Aubyn, Joyce, Nabokov, Updike, Coetzee, Richard Ford, and Lawrence. There are definitely others.
It is important to say now that I love some of these writers. So much so that I can put aside all the weird stuff about women, as well as the occasional creepiness about money and class. I just pretend it’s not happening. I skip over the worst bits and then google “Evelyn Waugh did he get divorced”, and I am satisfied. I can forgive, also, their idea that there is such a thing as being Too Intelligent. I am fine with all of that.
Really, it’s just the talking thing that gets me. It is the one thing I cannot excuse. What is all this about hating the sound of the human voice at full cry? Why are all of these characters so thirsty for quiet? Why don’t they ask each other any questions at all? Why do they pretend that you can know someone even slightly without talking to them for a long time? What is this nonsense about the language of love being anything other than words? When people in real life stare wordlessly at each other, it’s not because they are grooving on a telepathic level. It’s because they are boring, or on drugs, or scared.
I have never fallen in love with a person for any other reason than the way they talked. Talking, for me, is what does the trick. What they said, and how they said it, and then how they made me laugh. What else is there? Talking is what separates us from the higher primates, and we should all be heedful of that.
I want to read a book where the older woman asks the younger man a whole lot of questions. She is not shrewish, or shrill, or strident. She just has a few things she would like to know. She asks him, for instance, what his problem is. She makes him explain why he thinks he is smart. She asks him why he thinks it’s fine to wear that shirt with a Nehru collar. His answers are unsatisfactory, and he leaves. She goes out for dinner with her best friend, and the two of them talk until their whole faces hurt.